Ryan Vrede

Loftus coaches’ battle within a battle

The plights of Frans Ludeke and Jake White make for interesting subplots to Saturday's semi-final at Loftus, writes RYAN VREDE.

All the focus on the weekend's second semi-final will be on the players and teams, but lurking below the surface is the story of two coaches with different points to prove.

Ludeke (right) is a strange case. He has won two Super Rugby titles with the Bulls, but the perception lingers that that accomplishment had more to do with the calibre of the team at his disposal than it did with the calibre of his coaching. Victor Matfield, in his autobiography, did little to dispel that perception, regularly making references to his and Fourie du Preez's formulating of the game plan and making key selection calls.

There's also the refuse-to-die accusation that the structures and playing philosophy that existed were established by his predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, who remains a revered figure at Loftus and the coaching benchmark, despite having long moved on. So Ludeke continues to fight for legitimacy, certainly in the minds of many. 

I don't share this skepticism. As a professional coach, you play the hand you've been dealt in terms of personnel and where the team is in its evolution. Some teams require more technical coaching than others. The championship winning sides of 2009 and 2010 were two of the best ever to play the game and didn't demand this. 

However, this season he has acted more independently than ever before. Gone is Meyer's coaching team of Johann van Graan, John McFarland, Ricardo Loubscher and Basil Carzis. He has elevated young players like Francois Venter, Jan Serfontein and Arno Botha; not inherited them from the previous regime. Of the old guard only Matfield lives on, but only as an assistant coach, an appointment made on Ludeke's recommendation. Furthermore, it is his captain, Pierre Spies (prior to his season-ending injury), who he elected to be an extension of him on-field. 

But with a greater personal stamp on the team comes greater scrutiny, and, undoubtedly, a deeper level of determination from Ludeke to prove that his aptitude extends beyond taking an already formidable side to titles.

The Bulls start as favourites against the Brumbies at Loftus. History won't shape the result, but it certainly does give us insight into the Bulls' strength at this stage of the competition on home soil. They've destroyed all-comers since 2007 at this stage of the tournament in Pretoria, with the Crusaders thrice being on the receiving end of beatings.  

In Jake White's Brumbies they have a highly competent side that has the makings of a dominant one. They also encounter a coach with his own resolve deepened in the face of recent disappointments, chief among those his team's failure to qualify for the play-off last season and he himself missing out on the Wallabies' job because his coaching style was perceived to be too conservative.

Privately White's greatest professional desire is to take the reigns of an elite international team once again and winning Super Rugby will advance this cause, reinforcing his standing as one of the world's great coaches. Winning with a style perceived to be conservative (indeed one that is proven to be consistently successful at Test level) will make a statement to White's doubters. And White loves little more than rubbing his doubters' noses in it.

Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

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